Redefining genetic modification – Expert reaction

The Environmental Protection Authority is planning to tweak regulations to clear up confusion over what is and is not a genetically modified organism (GMO).

DNA molecules on the beautiful backdropUnder current law, widely-used crops can be considered “genetically modified” because of the way they were created, despite having been grown in New Zealand fields for decades.

The proposed amendments clarify that organisms and plants bred using conventional chemical and radiation treatments are not considered genetically modified under the law. These older breeding technologies were in use in New Zealand before restrictions on GMOs were put in place in 1998 and are common overseas.

The issue was raised by the High Court during a controversial court case last year which centred on the definition of GMOs.

The SMC collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to speak to a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476;

Dr Elspeth MacRae, General Manager Manufacturing and Bioproducts, Scion comments:

“The legislation is now almost two decades old and well out of step with the rapid advancement in science and the large amount of scientific evidence regarding the risks and benefits of genetic technologies. The legislation also needs to be redrafted so that it is clear and not able to be misconstrued (as in the High Court case).  These factors mean the New Zealand legislation is in need of reform.  Scientifically and commercially the benefits of genetic technologies have outweighed risks (recorded in multiple analyses after over 20 years of commercial and scientific activity).

“New Zealand needs to be able to responsibly choose genetic options for the future based on the scientific evidence. Since the legislation was introduced, we have become very risk averse; costs for applications for permission to evaluate technologies has risen sharply and, as evidenced by the reduction in field trials under containment, this is blocking innovation and opportunities that should be explored. As the Secretary of Treasury observed: “… that when new technologies come along – both GM and non-GM – our current system denies us the choice over whether we want them. Meanwhile, our international competitors do have this option.”

What would these changes mean for researchers and businesses?

“In its current interpretation the law says many plants currently growing in New Zealand are now defined as GMOs.    This means that in essence many people are growing such plants illegally because they have not gone through the proper EPA process. However, much more change is needed to the legislation to make it workable and less costly for research and business, and to promote true evaluation of the opportunities that allows benefits and risks to be assessed.”

“It is a fallacy that New Zealand is GMO free and always has been when we have food ingredients on our shelves produced using GMO and we wear and use cotton which is mostly GMO fibre, and we eat cheese and other foods that have been made using GMO microbes.

“New Zealand is a biological country and is likely to miss opportunities to capitalise on the benefits on GMO plants, including impacts that are positive for climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and our future liabilities under Kyoto and later agreements.  For example, the forest industry takes many years to develop new trees; in future for some applications it will be necessary to explore GMO options, e.g. disease resistance (trees in a forest die from a disease attack, and it will take years of searching for new resistant trees and then growing them back into a forest), or trees that can grow fast and also produce fibres and chemicals to replace those currently produced using petroleum.”

Prof Barry Scott, Professor of Molecular Genetics, Massey University, comments:

“I welcome the decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the regulations under the HSNO Act to clarify what is not a genetically modified organism. Decisions like this should not be made in the High Court, as was the case in May of last year around a determination sought by Scion from EPA where the decision made by EPA was subsequently overturned in the High Court.

“It is now 40 years since the development of recombinant DNA technologies and 20 years since passage of the HSNO Act. Our knowledge of the science and the technologies themselves have advanced significantly in this period yet research in New Zealand is caught in what essentially is a time warp. Clarity around what is not a GMO is very much a first and essential step to address to avoid legal redress as occurred last year.

“However, a more general overhaul of the regulations is urgently needed for New Zealand to take advantage of the very significant advances that have taken place. The highly risk averse nature of the current New Zealand regulations are way out of step with the current scientific knowledge available on GM technologies and the regulations and practices in most international jurisdictions. This disjoint has led to a compliance regime that is excessive to what is needed to manage the low risk nature of most of the current GM techniques and technologies.”

Prof Jack Heinemann, Lecturer in Genetics, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The EPA proposal is needed to improve the clarity of the HSNO Act. The EPA proposal also helps to remove uncertainty about forms of chemical mutagenesis in use prior to 1998, and whether or not the products of these kinds of modifications should be regulated by HSNO.

“I see no additional impact of great relevance to either research or industry from the proposed revisions, because the changes are aligned with how most of us had interpreted the rules anyway.

Assoc Prof Peter Dearden, Director of Genetics Otago, comments:

“The EPA is seeking submissions on a change to the legislation which is driven by a high court decision last year that indicated problems with the current legislation. What was pointed out by the high court is that commonly and widely used techniques, not thought of as genetic modification, are not exempt from the legislation, even though that was the intention.

“Normal selective breeding requires breeders to identify variant plants or animals, and select those with desirable characteristics. If there is not enough variation, or not the variation that is wanted, breeders can use radiation or chemical mutagens to make new variants. These chemicals or radiation cause small changes in DNA in random places, producing variants that can then be selected. These techniques are commonly used and underpin, for example, the green revolution, which had a huge positive impact in food production.

“The current legislation suggests that these techniques should be classed as genetic modification, and the organisms involved treated as genetically modified. This would have a huge effect on plant breeding and food production in particular  in New Zealand, as most new varieties of plants are produced in this way.

“The changes suggested by the EPA will tidy up this problem, and will not affect the way we currently deal with genetic modification in industry or research.”

Declarations of interest:
Elspeth McCrae: Scion is involved in research using genetic modification and its EPA application was the subject of the High Court case mentioned above.